by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
Only nineteen when he scored his first Top 40 hit (“The Diary”), Neil Sedaka – who’d already crossed paths with many a future star while in high school, where he both dated Carole King and served as a member of an early incarnation of The Tokens of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” fame – would subsequently go on to become one of the biggest male pop stars of the early ‘60s, racking up thirteen Top 40 hits in a five-year time span, including six Top Ten smashes (and another four Top Twenty hits), such as the snappy enduring oldies-radio staples “Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen,” “Calendar Girl,” and his signature tune, the chart-topping “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.” But like most American artists of the time, Sedaka’s profile began to wane considerably with the dawn of the British Invasion, and the hits dried up after 1963’s “Bad Girl.” Sedaka quietly retired from performing in 1966 and went to work as a staff writer for Screen Gems, and he’d score two hits – if in a more behind-the-scenes role this time – as the writer of “Workin’ on a Groovy Thing” (a Top Twenty hit for the Fifth Dimension) and “Puppet Man” (a Top Thirty hit for both the Fifth Dimension and Tom Jones).
Inspired by King’s newfound success in the early ‘70s as the introspective singer-songwriter behind the commercial and critical behemoth that was Tapestry, Sedaka – who, like the majority of his peers in the early ‘60s, a time when the single reigned supreme, hadn’t previously been very well-known for his full-lengths – turned his attention back to performing shortly after. The resulting album, Emergence, failed to make much of a ripple in the U.S. but did well enough in the U.K. that Sedaka and his family would relocate to London, and it turned out to be a completely life-changing move.
For one, the move brought Sedaka in contact with one of the hottest up-and-coming pop bands in all of Britain. Eric Stewart, Kevin Godley, and Lol Creme had scored an American hit of their own (under the moniker Hotlegs) in 1970 with the #22-charting novelty “Neanderthal Man”; Graham Gouldman joined the group shortly after, and the outfit was soon rechristened 10cc and quickly made waves on the U.K. charts with such singles as “Rubber Bullets” and “Donna.” [It would be a while before the band finally broke on American shores, finally scoring its first U.S. Top 40 hit in 1975 with the ambient art-pop of the Number Two smash “I’m Not in Love.” Godley and Creme would leave the group shortly after, but Stewart and Gouldman soldiered on, returning to the Top Five two years later with the equally enduring classic “The Things We Do for Love.”] The pairing of Sedaka and 10cc was a highly unlikely one, but it worked wonderfully, and the band would both co-produce and serve as Sedaka’s backing band on his next two albums (Solitaire and The Tra-La Days Are Over), both of which performed well in Britain but neither of which saw a U.S. release. Sedaka’s next outing, Laughter in the Rain, sans 10cc but recorded in L.A. with the industry’s session elite, such as frequent King sidemen Danny Kortchmar, Leland Sklar, and Russell Kunkel, was passed over for U.S. release as well.
Enter Elton John. By this time, Elton had become one of the biggest pop stars in the world and had even begun his own record label, the MCA-distributed Rocket Records, whose sole major U.S. hit up to this point had been Kiki Dee’s “I’ve Got the Music in Me.” [The label would soon become home to – and score hit singles from – the Hudson Brothers (“Rendezvous”) and Cliff Richard (“Devil Woman”).] Elton not only offered to sign Sedaka to a deal to get his music distributed in America again, but Rocket subsequently and cleverly took the best material from the three previous U.K. albums and compiled it into the largely-filler-free U.S. comeback disc Sedaka’s Back, which went gold and became his most commercially-successful studio album yet.
Although it’s technically a compilation, albeit of one comprised entirely of material that was completely new to American ears, Sedaka’s Back gels together quite nicely and makes a very cohesive album piece in its own right. The tracks featuring and co-produced by 10cc, in particular, are all uniformly fantastic, highlighted by the bilingual and comical – and very infectious – “Little Brother”; the chugging pop of the #27 hit “That’s When the Music Takes Me”; the fittingly-titled album closer “Our Last Song Together,” the final co-write between Sedaka and his longtime songwriting partner Howard Greenfield (who had penned the lyrics to Sedaka’s ‘60s hits); the heavily dramatic and show-stopping ballad “Solitaire,” which would later be covered by – and become a Top Twenty hit for – Carpenters; and Sedaka’s own rendition of the most famous song he ever wrote, “Love Will Keep Us Together,” which Captain and Tennille took all the way to Number One for four weeks that same year. [If you listen closely, you can hear Toni Tennille actually ad-lib the line “Sedaka is back” in the closing moments of their version!] Sedaka’s own performance of the song bears some notable differences from the more familiar rendition; there is no key change towards the end of his version, the bridge takes on a more shuffle –styled arrangement, and the overall groove is a bit less bright-and-bubbly pop and a bit more plastic-soul.
The L.A.-recorded tracks are slightly more hit-and-miss, but “A Little Lovin’” is as infectious a filler cut as “Little Brother,” and there are also two significant hits in the batch. The #22-charting ballad “The Immigrant” – one of seven tracks here co-penned by Sedaka’s latest songwriting partner, Phil Cody, and the record sales of which were likely negatively impacted by the fact that the title doesn’t appear in the lyric – is both a stunningly pretty and surprisingly hook-heavy tribute to John Lennon, whose drawn-out battle to become a U.S. citizen inspired the song.
Then, of course, there’s also the Number One smash “Laughter in the Rain” (also co-written by Cody and featuring backing vocals from a very young Brenda Russell of “Piano in the Dark” fame), as bright and sunny a single to soundtrack a memorable summer’s day as Chicago’s “Saturday in the Park” or the Beatles’ “Good Day Sunshine”; the melody itself is arguably Sedaka’s very best, but his happy piano licks on the intro and Jim Horn’s note-perfect smooth-saxophone solo both put the single over the top, making it one of the finest and best-arranged slices of pop to grace AM radio in the mid-‘70s.
The follow-up disc, The Hungry Years, was a slightly-revised version of the British-only release Overnight Sensation. (“The Queen of 1964” and “Goodman Goodbye” were wisely replaced, respectively, by the horn-heavy “Tit for Tat” and the highly appealing “Your Favorite Entertainer.”) The disc does bear notable differences from its predecessor, not in the least since Cody has a slightly lesser presence here, co-writing just five cuts while four of the remaining six (including “Stephen,” the infectious side-one closer “Baby Blue,” “Tit for Tat,” and the title cut) are songs from the Sedaka-Greenfield vault of previously unrecorded material. 10cc is sadly not present this time around, but Sklar, Russell, Horn, and Dean Parks all return from the last disc, and the crop of supporting players includes the legendary Steve Cropper, a young David Foster, former Skylark (“Wildlflower”) frontman Donny Gerrard, and Elton John’s longtime – and highly underrated – drummer Nigel Olsson.
Captain & Tennille, clearly hoping history would repeat itself, were savvy enough to go back to the well of obscure Sedaka songs and would score a Top Ten hit with a cover of this album’s “Lonely Night (Angel Face).” Like “Love Will Keep Us Together” before it, Sedaka’s own ever-so-slightly-slower version of “Lonely Night” has a much heavier R&B flavor than Captain & Tennille’s bouncier, more pop-oriented take. [The latter couple would later go on to score a third Sedaka-penned Top Ten hit by covering the track “You Never Done It Like That” from Neil’s next outing, Steppin’ Out.]
Sedaka’s then-boss, Elton John, makes an on-record appearance here (under the alias Ann Orson!) as Sedaka’s duet partner on the vaguely-Bo Diddley-tinged Number One smash “Bad Blood,” as unusually mean-spirited a song as Sedaka has ever written but still great, great fun to sing along to all the same (especially for any listeners who might be coming out of a break-up themselves), Elton harmonizing with Sedaka for nearly the entirety of the song and bringing out Sedaka’s looser side, the composer even busting out an occasional ad-lib (“Hear me talking now …”) and even more uncharacteristically letting loose a profanity in the second chorus (“The bitch is in her smile”) and not downplaying the word in the slightest, which is fairly amusing to hear coming out of the same early-‘60s pop star who gave us such innocuous fare as “Calendar Girl.” [The song's strangely never appeared on any Elton John compilation, but the single's great appeal owes as much to him as to Sedaka and really deserves to be re-discovered by younger Elton fans who might not even be aware of this intriguing item in this discography.]
Speaking of those early ‘60s hits of Neil’s, Sedaka boldly begins the closing cut of this album with the now-legendary intro (apparently taken straight from the original recording) to his signature song, “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” before launching into a radically-rearranged new version of the tune, Sedaka disposing with the peppy vibe of the original in favor of a heavily-slowed-down, jazz-lounge-oriented feel (complete with a string arrangement crafted by Richard Carpenter!) that is actually a much greater fit for the song’s downbeat lyric than the original arrangement. The mellow re-recording would deservedly reach the Top Ten in its own right, reaching #8, although it stopped shy of equaling the Number One peak of the original.
Bizarrely enough, in spite of containing a combined total of five of Sedaka’s Top 40 hits (three of them Top Ten smashes), both of these albums remained unavailable on CD in the U.S until 1998 when the specialty label Varese Sarabande reissued all three of Sedaka’s releases on the Rocket label. Sedaka’s run of hits would sadly dry up again after his fruitful years with Rocket, the legendary songwriter scoring just one more Top 40 hit (this one via Elektra), a duet with daughter Dara entitled “Should’ve Never Let You Go” that cracked the Top Ten in 1980, but he’s continued to be a live draw (especially in the U.K., where a reissue of Tony Christie’s 1971 cover of Sedaka’s “(Is This the Way to) Amarillo?” unexpectedly topped the charts for seven weeks in 2005 and became the year’s biggest hit!) and has been known to pop up frequently on American Idol.